"It's big starting the second half like we did today," Zambrano said Friday after throwing 6 1/3 scoreless innings as the Cubs continued what they'd started before the break, beating the Houston Astros 6-0 for their 13th win in 17 games.
"We have a lot more games to go. Hopefully we can catch the Milwaukee Brewers in the next two weeks and go from there. It's very important to have that first game back," Zambrano said.
Zambrano (11-7), who had some travel problems getting back to Chicago and missed a workout on Thursday, was sharp from the outset. Hunter Pence's leadoff single in the fourth, Eric Munson's single to start the sixth and Carlos Lee one-out single in the seventh were the only hits he allowed.
Zambrano is 6-2 in the eight starts since he got in a fight with former Cubs catcher Michael Barrett. Even though the Cubs' improved play has coincided with his resurgence, Zambrano said: "I don't think I'm the only ace here."
That pronouncement seemed to surprise manager Lou Piniella.
"Well, he's getting humble," Piniella said. "He's not the ace of the staff? If he feels comfortable with that, that's fine with me. We lean on him. He's very capable. ... Anytime your No. 1 starter picks it up like he has, it gives you a big lift as a team."
Zambrano is now 5-0 with a 0.40 ERA in his last six starts against the Astros dating to last season.
Houston finished with almost as many errors (4) as hits (5).
"We gave them a couple of runs and then we didn't get any offense going," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "That's what Zambrano has been doing to us. He sure enjoys himself when he pitches against us. He shows it on the mound and has been getting good results."
The Astros made two errors on the same play in the fourth when the Cubs scored three runs off Jason Jennings (1-5). Cliff Floyd and Mark DeRosa singled to put runners at the corners before Jacque Jones hit a sacrifice fly to make it 1-0 with DeRosa alertly racing to second on the play.
When Geovany Soto, just called up from Triple-A, hit a grounder to third, Mike Lamb fumbled the ball and then threw low to Lance Berkman at first for an error. DeRosa started around third but then retreated to the bag before Berkman airmailed a throw over the third base dugout and into the stands for another error, allowing DeRosa to score and Soto to take third. Zambrano then dumped an RBI single into left for a 3-0 lead.
"It's just one of those situations where he looked like he rounded it a little too far. I tried to make a good throw and I threw it in the stands," Berkman said.
"We played some sloppy defense, which is never good."
Jennings lasted 5 1/3 innings, allowing 10 hits and four runs with one walk and matching a season high with seven strikeouts. He was taken out in the sixth after Zambrano hit his second single and Alfonso Soriano doubled.
The Cubs added two runs in the eighth off reliever Matt Albers, who gave up a single to Soriano, walk to Theriot and two-run double to Derrek Lee. Chicago then loaded the bases as Floyd took an intentional walk and DeRosa reached on shortstop Loretta's second error of the game before reliever Trever Miller got the final two outs.
- Zambrano also started the final game before the All-Star break, losing to the Pirates. He's the first Cubs pitcher to make starts in consecutive games in the same season since Jon Leiber nearly six years ago. Leiber started Sept. 10, 2001, and then Sept. 18, 2001, after a league-wide work stoppage caused by the terrorist attacks.
- Jennings got the start because the Astros wanted to give ace Roy Oswalt another day off to recover from travel. Oswalt was on the NL All-Star team in San Francisco, but did not pitch Tuesday night.
- Soriano, who hit a ninth-inning homer in Tuesday night's game, struck out his first three times up Friday before his sixth-inning double.